Villanova took most of last week off with a bye in the first round of the NCAA's Division I football playoffs. They are preparing for an important weekend showdown with Liberty University this weekend, an unfamiliar foe for the Wildcats. The Big South auto-bid winners are no slouches on the gridiron, taking down Appalachian State, going to double-overtime at Richmond, and knocking off Coastal Carolina and JMU in back-to-back weeks to make it to the second round.
Liberty University was founded as Lynchburgh Baptist College by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. It has grown since then to become the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. The Flames campus hosts just over 13,000 students, but they have an online enrollment of over 100,000. Their football program has FBS intentions -- and they'll be eyeing the spot in Conference USA that was vacated by UAB this week -- and has former Kansas head coach Turner Gill running the program.
Beyond that, we're rather unfamiliar with the Flames, so we have reached out with two notables around the LU campus: Chris Lang (@ChrisLangLNA) of the (Lynchburg, VA) News & Advance, and Duke Cuneo (@Flames_Nation) of LibertyFlamesNation.com. They answered five questions on the Liberty football program to help us get up to speed.
(1) Liberty took Richmond to two overtimes, won the Big South and upset Coastal on a blocked field goal late, they beat JMU last weekend with late fourth-quarter score to go ahead. Does this team like close games?
CL: It sure seems that way. The game at Appalachian State was a real turning point in that regard, because the Flames had played a bunch of tight games in the last two years, with none of them really going their way. But they found a way to force a turnover in overtime in Boone to steal a win, and they've been good in the close ones ever since, especially on the road. The recipe in the last two games has been similar. Hang in until the fourth quarter then try to out-physical the opponent down the stretch with a clock-grinding run game. They scored the go-ahead touchdown a 17-play drive in which they ground 11 minutes off the clock, simultaneously wearing down JMU's defense while keeping Vad Lee and the Dukes' high-tempo offense off the field.
DC: I don't know if they like them, but it's definitely a big part of Liberty's football identity at this point. The Flames have been one game away from the playoffs for about 7 seasons before this one. It has almost always come down to a really close one. Last season they lost to Coastal Carolina on a blocked FG in OT, and dropped a close one to ODU in the last minute as well. It really seems like this team has turned the corner and is winning some of these close games that have escaped them in the past.
(2) Villanova head coach Andy Talley compared Josh Woodrum to a quarterback he coached from 2007-10, Chris Whitney. Whitney was big and fearless, with a good arm and a willingness to throw his body into a defender to help break a runner loose or to pick up an extra yard or two on a scramble. Is that an apt comparison from your vantage point?
CL: I remember watching Whitney in the playoffs, and it's an apt comparison. Woodrum is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and doesn't look athletic at first blush. But he has deceptive speed and great pocket awareness along with escapability when the pocket breaks down. Liberty has added a lot of option looks for Woodrum, and he's been especially good with the zone read in the red zone. As for his throwing ability, he's worked hard on his deep ball this season and has connected several times on long throws, both to top receiver Darrin Peterson and speed burner Dante Shells. He's hoping to have Shells back at full strength this week after the receiver has missed most of the last five games with an ankle injury.
DC: It definitely seems like Coach Talley's comparison is a good one. This is Josh's third season has a starter, and he has really taken a big step forward this year. He can make the throws to any part of the field, but his toughness, both mental and physical is his defining characteristic in my mind. He's not super fast, but he can definitely run the ball if he needs to, and he doesn't shy away from contact.
(3) Liberty let JMU score 21 points in the second quarter, but stifled their attack entirely in the second half. What do the Flames do well that helped corral Vad Lee's dual-threat, and how should it translate against Villanova?
CL: I thought the success was two-fold. The Flames applied simple four-man pressure up front to help flush Lee from the pocket. And they played extremely well on the back end, leaving Lee with no real openings to throw to. From everything the Liberty coaches are saying, it sounds like Robertson has better throwing mechanics than Lee and is better at throwing on the run, so the LU secondary will once again need to show patience to keep Robertson from beating them with his legs when the pocket breaks down.
DC: This has been a really up and down year for Liberty's defense. They lost two NFL caliber CB's from last season (Walt Aikens was drafted in the 4th round by Miami) and the secondary has definitely struggled at times. However, the past two weeks the defense has been key to pulling off the upsets at Coastal and JMU. At Madison, the defense really had a great game. They gave up a long run for one touchdown, and due to turnovers started with their backs against the wall for the other two. Other than that, they really kept Lee in check. If you look at their best games, they have been when Liberty's defensive line was able to get pretty consistent pressure. That obviously disrupts the timing of any offense, and keeps the secondary from having to cover WR's for too long. The other huge factor against JMU was time of possession. Liberty's offense was able to help the defense tremendously by keeping Vad Lee off the field. As you know, the Dukes like to run a bunch of up tempo, and that can really wear a defense down. Liberty was able to possess the ball for 39 minutes of the game, including 12 minutes of the 4th quarter. That goes a long ways.
(4) When it comes to the kicking game, that's Villanova's biggest weakness. You'll see the Wildcats go for it on 4th down more often than lining up for a field goal. For Liberty, John Lunsford has made some impressive kicks. How much do the Flames trust him to get out there for a long field goal?
CL: Immensely. And that's what makes him dangerous. He's 4 for 5 from 50-plus this year, including the 60 yarder that sent the Richmond game to overtime. He has a cannon for a leg, and the only real question has been his accuracy. Now that the Flames have shown an ability to run a successful fake, it makes the kicking game even that much stronger. You have to respect Lunsford's ability to make a long kick. But LU won't be afraid to roll the dice, either, if the situation is right.
DC: The coaching staff definitely trusts him at this point. John came to Liberty and started as a Freshman. From the beginning everyone knew he had a monster leg, but his accuracy had been really questionable at times. Last season as a Sophomore, frankly, he was bad. He went 8-19 on the season and really lost the staff's confidence I think. He seems to have figured it out this year though. He hit a 60 yarder on the last play of regulation against Richmond. He's hit several from 50+ this season, including the 56 yarder against JMU that would have been good from 65. Gill isn't afraid to go for it on 4th down if he thinks the team needs a touchdown, but he also doesn't mind sending Lunsford out there pretty much any time the offense makes it past mid field. He's definitely earned the "Legatron" nickname.
(5) A big part of last weekend's win was the ability for DJ Abnar to run against the JMU defense. He's got over 1,200 yards on the season already -- how important has Abnar been to the Flames' offense?
CL: Like any offense, the Flames are much better when they can run the football, especially in clock-milking situations like the fourth-quarter drives at Coastal Carolina and James Madison. The last time the Flames went away from the run was in the 38-36 home loss to Charleston Southern, a game in which Abnar only carried the ball 12 times. As good as he's been, the real factor that's developed in the last two weeks is the return of backup Todd Macon. Abnar has had some huge carry games, including a 39-carry showing against Monmouth. But they had no depth behind Abnar for the six weeks Macon was out with a broken foot. Macon had eight carries on the 17-play drive against JMU, running hard up the middle when Abnar was a little gimpy with a sore ankle. Both are healthy and should play big roles on Saturday.
DC: Abnar's performance this season was the real question mark coming in. Liberty's top RB, Des Rice injured his knee in Spring practice and is out for the year. Most didn't think Abnar could carry the load, as he isn't a big guy. However, he has been very consistent, and very good for the Flames all season. For a small guy he runs tough. The first tackler rarely brings him down, and he plays with a ton of heart. So much of the talk about this offense revolves around QB Josh Woodrum and WR Darrin Peterson, but Abnar is definitely integral to Liberty's success.